Behind the hotline: Stories of grief and despair flood the Schenectady County call center
SCHENECTADY – An elderly woman called the county hotline.
She has never had to ask for help before.
But now stuck at home, she didn’t want to venture outside to shop and asked the County Emergency Response Coalition to deliver a bag of food to her.
The woman cried.
Sometimes Cindy McKeon cries too.
“It’s touching because I’m so grateful for what I have,” said McKeon, who lives on a 58-acre farm in Mariaville. “Receiving calls from people who have nothing is very humiliating. “
McKeon is one of 34 staff, mostly reassigned library workers, who run the county hotline.
Although originally intended to facilitate food deliveries, the county relief operation has turned into a catch-all during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic:
The volunteers are part-time dispatchers, part-time therapists.
“It’s more than a food call center,” said Jason LeCuyer, coordinator of the county’s central food and supplies distribution site at the Boys & Girls Club. “It’s basically a community information center. “
The Boys & Girls Club call center in the town’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood has received more than 13,000 calls since its launch in late March.
The Daily Gazette visited the center a recent afternoon. A reporter did not listen to the calls, but captured the discussions as they unfolded.
Karen Bradley took a caller through Matilda’s Law, the state directive requiring vulnerable residents and those under 70 to stay indoors and limit outside contact.
At 76, the person had health problems, which left them vulnerable to the virus.
But their employer demanded that they continue to report to work.
Bradley directed them to the State Department of Labor.
“People are indicating that they are alone and scared,” Bradley said. “We are a human voice.
The calls reveal a kaleidoscope of pain, suffering and anxiety.
Bradley recounted a discussion with a blind man with a woman in hospice care and a teenager at home.
There was the nurse from Ellis Medicine who had seen the devastation with her own eyes and didn’t want to venture outside on her day off.
And there are hospitalized parents who wonder how to provide for their children.
“We got calls from the hospital asking for deliveries for their families,” Bradley said.
Others, whether due to language barriers or other reasons, are unable to provide their phone numbers or addresses.
Bradley sometimes recognizes their voices because they frequent the library.
“It’s the human part of it,” she said.
REQUEST FOR LAYERS
Staff members alternate between three three-hour shifts, using smartphones issued by the county and connected to a single number:
A room full of masked people, many with wireless headphones, makes people appear to be talking to each other.
Calls come in waves, starting at 9:30 a.m. and dropping around lunchtime before increasing again at 2 p.m.
Only one volunteer answered a call at 2:25 p.m.
But within minutes, five of the six phones were vibrating.
One call came in from the Bronx, another wondering why they hadn’t received their delivery. Someone else wondered about their federal stimulus check.
Volunteers stick to a standard script, asking how many people make up the household, if they have any special needs or food allergies.
Kaela Wallman guided a caller through the process.
“Is there anything else you specifically need? Wallman asked.
“I’m not sure what we have on hand,” Wallman said, “but we’ll do our best to get it to you.”
Wallman told the appellant when to expect a delivery. Keep your phone close and look for an unknown number, she said before disconnecting.
“Two in a row,” Wallman said. “Diapers size 6.”
Across the room, another request arrived.
“We are currently in the process of supplying them,” said the volunteer. “Do you need food? ”
As the crisis sets in at its own rambling pace, needs evolve and the county tries to respond with agility.
Masks are popular demand, and the county was low to the ground after receiving 55,000 from Fruit of the Loom, along with paper units.
(For specific mask requests, call 518-386-2824, ext. 2.)
The recently purchased diaper cover arrived thanks to customers of Tara Kitchen, who dropped off items in both locations of the restaurant, one in Schenectady, the other in Troy.
Most people forgo the $ 10 gift certificate the restaurant offers as an incentive.
“In some ways when you ask for something it’s easier for people to do,” said Aneesa Waheed, owner of Tara Kitchen.
Cleaning supplies are another item in high demand, but the county has yet to be able to guarantee a supply.
Calls decrease after 3 p.m., the cut-off time for same-day delivery, which ends at 7:30 p.m.
But they come back up at night when anxiety rises.
Those who call after hours will receive an answer from Yetzabel Miranda, who answers all calls, even those who do not leave a message.
Volunteers record requests on paper forms, which they hand in to the nearby data center. Workers then record these orders in a database before sending them downstairs where staff at the facility’s sparkling new gymnasium pack the bags to distribute to the community.
Along with the masks and all deliveries, brochures promote resources such as child care, unemployment management and other support services.
As the crisis continues, officials are refining the data collection process.
And the National Guard took charge of deliveries using county vehicles.
For many, seeing people in uniform is reassuring and brings a sense of calm, said LeCuyer.
They also offer a new perspective to county officials, who continue to refine and codify procedures at the new command center.
“The playbook is here now forever,” LeCuyer. “For the next disaster or pandemic, we have the manual to do it. “
To date, the operation has made more than 9,100 deliveries to 7,500 people.
Right now, the county tracks deliveries by zip code, which can make determining needs in specific neighborhoods an inaccurate science, LeCuyer said.
But calls across the county increased after the April 22 drive-thru food distribution at SUNY Schenectady, which provided bags to 667 vehicles.
“People in poverty are struggling,” said coalition member William Rivas.
A week later, 414,279 pounds of food from the Northeastern New York State Regional Food Bank passed through the facility, not counting the 40,000 pounds allocated for the drive-through event.
The food bank supplies nearly 66,000 books to the distribution center per week. Despite the high volume, officials say supplies are unlikely to run out immediately.
“Everything is fine,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the food bank. “We’re working hard to keep the food coming in, and right now we’re in pretty good shape. “
The county does not keep track of the number of people requesting deliveries for financial reasons rather than simply not wanting to leave home.
But for the record, Bradley estimates that two-thirds of callers are in economic difficulty.
“We just want to provide the resources,” Bradley said.